Since I was a child, I got the idea, somehow — call it religion, culture or some combination — that my life was a rehearsal for better things to come. I was not too sternly chastised for my early stupidities, nor too sternly admonished for my teenage hormonal cascade…and was blessed and encouraged once I headed out for a cross-country drive to my first year of college at 18.
It didn’t take more than four or five hours and I was driving and bawling my eyes out. I got over it and finished the 2,700 mile drive by 10pm the third day.
Then I almost got kicked out. From a portion of a probably abandoned book draft, unedited.
As ridiculous as I would find the tenants of any organized hierarchical religious power structure today — which exist for many purposes, but none so great as that of inflicting guilt upon those who have not earned it, i.e., guilt over their natures as human animals — it must be said that all are not created equal. But if the Mormons are on the fringe of Protestant Christianity in America, the Evangelical “Born Agains” are completely off the deep end. And yet, it was at just such a depth of dysfunctional humanity that I found myself as an 11 yr-old pioneer of this thing called a life.
It began innocently, casually — even fun enough. Not having been church goers with any regularity in the past (we did things like camping, hunting, and fishing trips instead), there was an alluring social aspect to it, as though we’d merely been accepted into a new club with lots of activities to share.
And oh the comfort of certainty! Perhaps the most alluring of all — the basis of any truly great scam. At long last, we did not really have to concern ourselves with living a decent or a good life in pursuit of a just reward later — like old age, with people who care enough about you for what you accomplished, as it was for my grandparents. Nope. We can cash in right now. It takes but three steps: Admit your depravity and accept that you’re lost; Acknowledge that 2nd part of a triune God, tortured and killed at the pleasure of the 1st, who apparently did so so save your ass from the penalty of eternal damnation in a place of of his own making; and say the magic words with the caveat that “you have to believe them in your heart.”
But how does a kid who has not yet fully leaned how to ignore the plain reality around him, and lie to himself about it, truly believe something unseen, untouched — merely felt at some deep emotional level of guilt? But such is baked into the cake of a patriarchal, hierarchal power structure that seeks to preserve unquestioning authority by keeping everyone a little off balance, unsure of themselves in a microcosm of a religiously separatist society based on certainty and “the free gift” of eternal life in a mythical place we’re told is far better than “that other mythical place” where, apparently, all the fun and interesting people go.
At 11, a boy doesn’t yet really know the difference between fun and boring people. He just doesn’t want to burn in hell, forever, or even at all. He merely accepts what he’s been conditioned and taught to accept by adults he mistakenly believes have some clue of what they’re fucking talking about. And so the natural doubt sets in, fueled by a deep fear and loathing; and its only out of love, they say, that such a thing persists. And that’s why the deal always comes with “continuing education” in the form of sermons, “Sunday school,” Bible studies, and learning how to make a killer dish in the crock pot for the pot luck. There’s always more to learn and understand, and one only gets to attain the enlightenment by which the authorities of the church have been endowed by accepting your calling from God to devote your life to ministering to the depraved…unless you’re female. There, you get the rare pleasure of accepting your calling to marry a minister, have babies, and set a good example of what a submissive wife and mother is supposed to be.
Whether one accepts such a calling or not, the big prize — certainty — gradually sets in and one no longer frets about it. The indoctrination is complete. The lie is metaphysical. And it’s this meta-lie or, meme, that reproduces itself in the offspring of the indoctrinated.
The Board Room, Tennessee Temple University: some Saturday morning, spring, 1980
The late “Dr.” Lee Roberson; founder, head pastor, shepherd of the flock, and best dressed sat at the head of the table in his dark blue pinstripe, double-breasted suit and asked me to explain myself.
“We went to LuLu Falls, in the afternoon.”
“Did you check into the chapel, for services?” he asked, with a piercing look. He’d done this before.
“Yes, I did, and then left right away.”
“And you went to LuLu?”
“And what did you find?” he asked, and as with all his questions, knowing the answer already.
“They tossed me a beer they’d brought along.”
“Did you bring anything for them?” he asked.
“Because I didn’t know about the alcohol.”
“And did you drink it?”
“So, they brought it along, and you yielded to the temptation; is that correct?”
In their view, this was essential. My culpability was that of an average sinner tempted by all the things that serve to undermine the authority and concentrated power of those who make being a prison guard in that realm their life’s work.
After, “Dr.” Dennis Michelson (these Bible schools incestuously bestow honorary doctorates upon each other, to prop up the aura and schtick of authority never seriously questioned) speaks up. “We just want our son to be right,” Michelson tells Roberson, relaying the essentials of a conversation he’d had with my mother a day or so after he woke me from a sound sleep at 2am of the night in question. I didn’t take substantial account of the gross insanity I was being subjected to at the time, because I was largely ignorant and, in those days, you did not learn from any varied collection of history and philosophy books. You learned from only one book.
Squinting to the fluorescent lights from the massive ceiling unit, 2am
“Yes, sir, I’m Richard Nikoley.”
“Can you come with me, son?”
And down we went, to the stairwell at the end of the hall.
“Were you out at LuLu Falls this afternoon?”
“And did you bring a cache of booze?”
“Don’t jive me, boy!” as he hovers over me and gets in my face, for maximum intimidation. Hi, “Dr.” Micheleson.
He ran me up, over, down and about, from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. In the end I confessed to the crime. It had been either guys I’d been to the falls with before, or friends who knew my love of the place. It was an easy decision for anyone who knew the ins & outs of a supposed college life: there were no classes that day, only boring indoctrination — something they call a “revival” — and it spans a week.
We thought we’d not asked for much. We decided to take a day. And they decided to give us hell.
LuLu Falls, Georgia, Spring, 1980
It was spring runoff. It was cold. But the bowl that had been formed over millions of previous years left a deep pool that could easily sustain a plunge from 60 feet above — just watch and protect your ass; unless, you want a good spanking. The adrenalin squirt from the plunge left you immune from the shock of 40 degree water. But not for very long. By the time you had swum to the rocky bank, you were ready to climb out.
There was a primitive, primal element to the thing I would not even begin to understand for years to come, until I began thinking of myself as an animal; an animal that thinks.
They tossed me a beer. While that was a bit of a surprise, it was not a total surprise. Cause & effect has not yet been worked out to this day. Then, there was a bottle of MD 20/20, or two. I don’t recall whether there was hard liquor or not — maybe Southern Comfort — or whether I had any if there was. What I do remember is keeping myself somewhat sane as most of the other four or five guys got bombed to the point of being sick and vomiting. In a normal world this would have been one of many rites of passage. And even if you get caught, you get a talking too, some scorn, and if you’re a good guy or gal who really doesn’t want to shower his or her parents with problems non stop, you do a little better the next time. Or you chalk it up.
But we didn’t live in a normal world at all. And abnormality visited us soon enough that afternoon in the form of other students showing up, after they had spent the last few hours we dodged being engrossed or revived by spiritual matters. And they were so spiritually minded, so charitable, that they apparently wasted no time in reporting our collective debauchery to the authorities. And authority is an interesting thing. Perhaps God exists merely to fill the void of absolute. Had we been driving around, endangering others, they might have gone to the local law authorities. Had we been trashing the floor of an office building, they might have gone to the building owners. We were drinking out in nature, not harming anyone, nor were we going to. This obviously required spiritual authority.
It was 19080, and though I finished out the year, returned to the Pacific Northwest, did a wonderful year at a community college where I learned stuff about computers that guides me to this day, I ended up pretty OK.
I transferred to Oregon State under an NROTC program and did a pretty mundane initial year, though I was introduced to what’s it’s like to be stoned for an entire spring term, getting the best grades of your college career (3.8 GPA, totally stoned for all classes and all tests, essentially 24×7).
I spent the summer at home anticipating, then embarking on the famed Midshipman cruise. That was a month in Japan, Korea, and about three weeks at sea. I had my first real experience with a woman during that time. It would take a few more years before I stopped lying about when, exactly, that point in time was.
I came back so rarin’ to go for my senior year of college. I wasn’t much interested in being stoned all the time, anymore. Now and then, fine. Something else happened very unexpectedly, and occupied most everything I considered important for the next year and a half.
I’m pretty much still as obsessive, though I try to channel it to various places.